Atlanta mayoral candidates promise to turn over disputed school deeds

Both of Atlanta’s mayoral candidates promised to usher in an era of cooperation between the city and Atlanta Public Schools, starting with one big gesture.

Mary Norwood and Keisha Lance Bottoms said they would turn over school property deeds, long sought by APS, on their first day as mayor.

Bottoms, in a Monday statement, said she would appoint an education director to “help strengthen” the relationship among the city, school district, and communities.

“Improving education in Atlanta is a top priority, and I look forward to resetting the relationship the city has had with our school system,” she wrote.

Norwood, in an interview earlier this month, said she would avoid “divisiveness and dissension.”

“We are all in this together. And it is really important to make sure the schools achieve their objectives as well as the city government achieves its objectives,” she said. “I have been a collaborative person all of my life.”

In other mayoral runoff news:

Much of the political chatter leading up to the Dec. 5 runoff election has centered around city hall corruption, development and leadership styles. But education will get the spotlight when Bottoms and Norwood meet Friday to talk about how they will support students from cradle to career.

Both candidates committed to participating in the forum — billed as a “candid conversation” and co-hosted by numerous agencies including the nonprofit Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students. Panelists include APS superintendent Meria Carstarphen and Morehouse College interim president Harold Martin Jr.

The event’s timing, just four days before voters head to the polls, puts focus on the friction between the 50,000-student school district and Mayor Kasim Reed, who have battled over Beltline funding, policing, and deeds to school sites that APS has sought to wrestle from the city.

“We know people say they care about education, but we are hosting this to find out what people plan to do and get it on the record,” said Vett Vandiver, spokeswoman for GEEARS. “I think you know how important it is that the next mayor really cooperate with Atlanta Public Schools.”

The strained relationship has been evident in the deed dispute that pitted Reed, who endorsed Bottoms, against the school district.

The city holds the title to dozens of school properties, a holdover from before the school system legally split from the city in the 1970s.

In 2015, APS sued to gain control over four properties previously used as schools that it wanted to sell. Reed wanted the district to require that redeveloped properties with multi-family housing include affordable units, and the school board approved an affordable housing policy earlier this year.

The city stated in court documents in August that it has transferred the four properties to the school district and that the case “is moot and should be dismissed.”

APS officials say as many as 50 parcels remain in dispute. The court case is still pending.

It’s “incredibly important” for the city and Atlanta schools to work together, said school board member Matt Westmoreland, who in November won election to the Atlanta City Council. He has not endorsed a mayoral candidate, and he campaigned on a pledge to help bring the two entities together.

It is telling that both mayoral candidates have agreed to publicly discuss education just days before the election, he said. The city and school district can team up on numerous issues — from early childhood education and workforce development to joint training for their two police forces. And, yes, also on the deed issue.

“On day one it will be possible for the new mayor to release all of the deeds to APS, and I’m a fervent supporter of the new mayor taking that action,” Westmoreland said.

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